How the Tallest, Most Expensive New Downtown Condo Is Keeping Everyone Else at Ankle-Height

Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue's value depends substantially on dwarfing its neighbors.

Downtown bibliophiles shed a few tears at the recent announcement that M. Coy Books will soon be closing. After 18 years on Pine Street between First and Second avenues, "We were struggling with the rent," says co-owner Michael Coy. His store will be shuttered by the end of the month. A national retailer will likely follow at twice the old rent, according to the building's property manager. But the real issue—the real value—is the view above the four-story A.E. Doyle Building (at Second and Pine) and elsewhere around the block. One of several parcels with particularly valuable air rights, the Doyle changed hands two years ago as part of a series of transactions that ultimately led to M. Coy losing its lease, and downtown condo dwellers securing spotless vistas. More deals may well follow. All of them literally revolve around the building known as Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue, whose value—units are priced from $1.5 million to $9 million—depends substantially on dwarfing its neighbors. "Designed exclusively for the confident few," according to its Web site, Fifteen Twenty-One will be the tallest condo-only tower in the city: 440 feet high, or nearly the height of the Smith Tower. Those confident few are expected to take residence this fall. The project has a glossy Web site with simulated views from all sides that boasts, "From each of its thirty-eight floors, Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue offers a wide-open expanse of natural and urban views. To the west over Pike Place Market, a protected water view. In all directions, scenes of the vibrant cityscape are backed by mountain and sky." Well, not in all directions. Though its developers own most of the short, surrounding properties on the block, certain holdout landowners have refused to sell. And now, the same recent city zoning revisions that permit the soaring condo make possible some very tall, skinny, view-blocking towers around it. If three key property owners choose to max out their lots, some condo buyers at Fifteen Twenty-One could be made very unhappy. (The condo is 95 percent presold, according to Windermere Real Estate, meaning contracts have been signed for deals to close this autumn; however, affected buyers could still walk away from their deposits.) Whether this is a case of spite, blackmail, or defending one's property rights depends on who's talking. The city's Landmarks Preservation Board has a say, too. Also involved are nude showgirls, bird-watchers in Israel, and the bitter legacy of the monorail. Most of the block in question was originally owned by reclusive land hoarder Sam Israel (1889–1994). Today, his legacy is the nonprofit Samis Foundation, which has preserved and redeveloped many of his neglected historic buildings, sometimes with attendant controversy, as at the Washington Shoe Building near Pioneer Square, where artists were evicted earlier this decade to make way for market-rate commercial tenants and a penthouse for Samis managing director William Justen. The foundation says it has given more than $40 million to charity, primarily for local Jewish education, including the Seattle Hebrew Academy. Other beneficiaries are farther from Seattle, like the Latrun Migratory Bird Observation Center in Israel. Formerly the head of Seattle's Department of Planning and Development (DPD), Justen dreamed up Fifteen Twenty-One as that department was writing the new zoning code, which took effect in 2006. Samis then sold two parcels along Second Avenue to Minneapolis developer Opus Northwest for $25 million. "I had a concept that Opus liked," says Justen, who adds that Samis also expects a bonus when the project is done. To the north, however, lay the diminutive Doyle Building, which then housed M. Coy Books and other longtime tenants. That building was bought for $7.3 million three days after the new zoning went into effect. It's no coincidence that the buyer was a member of the Samis Foundation's board, Eli Almo. "I told him it was available," says Justen. "We were very glad that a friendly entity bought it." Meaning that Almo removed from the chessboard a building that potentially could've been expanded into an unsightly taller tower. In plans currently under DPD review, Almo proposes to add a fifth story to his building, but will stop there, capping the Doyle's height at a level neatly matching the blank north concrete wall of Fifteen Twenty-One (residences start at the seventh floor). Expanding and renovating the Doyle Building also gains him a better class of tenants—so long, M. Coy—and higher rents. The Boeing Employees Credit Union is taking over the ground-floor corner formerly occupied by a local clothing boutique. According to the building's leasing agent, Almo's retirement-home company, ERA Care, will occupy the top two floors of his building. He can also sell or transfer the Doyle Building's rights to build higher, says Justen. So everyone's a winner—the condo, Samis, Opus, and the migratory birds of Latrun. Everyone except for M. Coy. Justen, who in recent years decamped from the Shoe Building, will himself be moving into one of the "sky-high international style homes" at Fifteen Twenty-One. But the views from Fifteen Twenty-One aren't so clear to the south, facing Pike Street, and the neighbors aren't so friendly. More white DPD signs announce two very different projects on parcels Samis once coveted. One is the site of the now-shuttered Liberty pawnshop, formerly Pike Street's best place to buy a snare drum and a shotgun. Justen tried to buy the property, he says; instead, Urban Visions, a major downtown developer, snatched it for $3.3 million in late 2006. However, the new owner is being cagey about his plans, filed with the city DPD, for a 15-story condo. "We are not on any set timetable," says company principal Jeff Schoenfeld. "Our plate's pretty full." He says the company is close to breaking ground on a much bigger hotel-condo, the Candela, near the same site. And though his architect has renderings for a skinny building on the small, "challenging" Liberty lot, he avows, "That's really more of a study." But the bigger impediment to Fifteen Twenty-One is next door, at downtown's most notorious intersection. The Eitel Building, on the northwest corner of Second and Pike, was once home to Street Outreach Services, but is now derelict and empty apart from a needle-exchange facility. The city once threatened to condemn the property and has been trying to clean up the area for years. With enthusiastic support from Justen, the city landmarked the 104-year-old Eitel two years ago. Kicking and screaming through that process was the building's longtime owner, and Justen's nemesis, Richard Nimmer, a North Seattle Realtor who's not exactly a big player in local real estate circles. He's now proposing a 22-story tower that would preserve the six-story façade of the building but block many of the south-facing windows at Fifteen Twenty-One. "His proposal is to build to the property lines," says Justen of Nimmer's skinny, Tokyo-style condo. "I think the nearest point of [Fifteen Twenty-One] is about 15 feet away. Our condominiums would be staring at his blank wall instead of sky and water. We told our buyers that that could happen, and they hope it doesn't. They're taking that risk. That's part of urban living." Nimmer did not respond to calls for comment. His attorney, Curt Smelser, concedes, "He doesn't own anything else downtown. He is a little guy." This is just one of many reasons why Justen tends to dismiss the project. Justen estimates Nimmer's proposal would cost around $65 million. "There is no money available for that kind of building right now," he contends. "Most people in the business don't think that project could ever be feasible. But he's kind of a contrarian, and we'll see what happens." "We've offered to buy the building," Justen says. But after a falling-out during the monorail wars along Second Avenue, having to do with whose property would be condemned for its construction and a passenger station, "he got so mad at me...that he won't speak to me anymore." Meanwhile, facing west toward Elliott Bay, Samis dominates the low-rise stretch along First Avenue, opposite the Pike Place Market, guaranteeing that "protected water view." That includes the low-income Gatewood Hotel facility on the corner of Pine, operated by Plymouth Housing Group, a big parking lot now being used for construction staging, and the Seattle's Best Coffee joint on the corner of Pike. All except for one parcel tucked in between: the Déjà Vu strip club, housed in a building still owned by the family that built it in 1924. Under current city rules, it could be razed and developed as high as 125 feet (roughly 10 stories), according to the DPD, which would mean shorter sunsets for some owners at Fifteen Twenty-One. But the city landmarks board—in the apparent belief that the phrase "1000s of Beautiful Girls and Three Ugly Ones" is now an essential part of the urban landscape—may come to the rescue. It has proposed to designate the Déjà Vu building a landmark as well, much to the chagrin of owner Joseph Holmes, a former PR man for Boeing. "What it does is take away value," he says. Takes it from Holmes, maybe. But gives it to the confident few.

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